Coyotes getting back to defensive identity
GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Coyotes are far from a polished product as they enter the final 12 games of the NHL’s regular season. That was apparent in their inability to put away the Panthers on Friday due to failed scoring chances.
But at least the Coyotes got the win — their third straight — and at least they look more like the Coyotes of old.
That identity starts with defense.
There are still lapses in their own zone, there are still questionable decisions with the puck, and there are a few too many blown leads in recent memory, but in the 12 games since the Olympic break, the Coyotes have allowed 27 goals. Their 2.25 goals against average represents the seventh-best mark in the NHL over that time period and is keeping company with the likes of Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago and St. Louis. Before the break, it was 2.84 when the Coyotes were allowing 32.1 shots per game (now 29.1).
In the 16 games since goalie Mike Smith got his groove back, the Coyotes have allowed 33 regulation or overtime goals (and lost one game in a shootout), or just a shade over two goals per game. To put that in the perspective of an entire season, L.A. currently leads the NHL with 2.07 goals against per game this season.
"It’s Smith at the top of his game, it’s making sure we’re taking less penalties … There are things that all fall into place that makes your goals against go down," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "We got healthy. You get (Shane) Doan and (Lauri) Korpikoski back; you get Z(bynek Michalek) back. It’s not a huge discrepancy from where you were to where you are now, but there’s a lot of little factors that come into play that can just improve you that much."
Defenseman Derek Morris said a lot of the credit goes to the forwards for better puck management.
"It makes it a lot easier when you don’t have to defend," Morris said. "Our forwards have done a great job of getting through the neutral zone and not turning the pucks over.
"Early in the year, we turned a lot of pucks over trying to make plays that weren’t quite there. I think our forwards now are getting it down in (the offensive) zone and being creative in their zone as opposed to through the neutral zone."
The same can be said of the defensemen, who are making smarter plays with the puck and are benefitting from the return of Michalek, who leads the team in blocked shots by a wide margin with 144.
"I think (Keith Yandle) and Oliver (Ekman-Larsson) are really coming into their own and taking over games," Morris said. "You look at Yands’ play in probably the last 10 games, he’s been probably the best defenseman that I’ve seen that we’ve played against. He’s creating stuff, making it easier on the forwards, getting them the pucks with speed and causing less time in our zone."
Defensive consistency will clearly be vital down the stretch, as is the four-point lead the team has managed to build on the Dallas Stars. Starting Saturday when the scorching hot Boston Bruins come to town, the schedule flips in the favor of the Stars.
Here’s a look at the next four opponents for each club:
— Dallas has three home games against Ottawa, Winnipeg and Nashville (three non-playoff teams) sandwiched around a game at Chicago, where the Blackhawks are playing without star Patrick Kane for at least the next three weeks.
— After Saturday’s game against the Eastern Conference-leading Bruins, the Coyotes hit the road for three games at the Rangers, Penguins and Devils. Couple that with another trip to Columbus and Nashville in April and the Coyotes will have made three trips to the Eastern time zone in the final five-plus weeks of the season.
"I think it just messes up your sleeping patterns a bit," Morris said. "The last time we got all the way back east we had just gotten settled in and then we came back. This trip is shorter with shorter turnarounds and shorter rests, so we’re just going to have to find a way to catch up when we can."
Before that, the Coyotes will have to figure out how to tame the Bruins, who have won 11 straight after Friday’s 2-0 victory in Denver against the Avalanche. Boston beat the Coyotes 2-1 on March 13 in Boston in a game in which the Bruins jumped out to a 2-0 lead after one period.